Everyone should watch Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror
PUBLISHED: 00:26 20 January 2018
Black Mirror is a razor-sharp examination of modern society which may well make you wish you could live without your technology and social media accounts (for an hour or two, at least). We discover the reasons why we should be watching.
As Forrest Gump told us: “my Mom always said life was like a box of chocolates - you never know what you’re gonna get” – the same can be said for Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s science-fiction anthology series, currently streaming on Netflix.
It marks the latest chapter in a journey which has seen Brooker’s brainchild catapulted from humble beginnings on Channel 4, back in 2011, to the forefront of international attention after the streaming juggernaut snapped it up in 2015.
Brooker, now 46, has plied his trade as a journalist, presenter and a writer - you may know him for his end-of-year Wipe specials for the BBC, in which he reviews the year that was – although commitments to a certain series sold to Netflix saw this take a well-earned rest in 2017.
Following the writing of a zombie-based drama miniseries, Dead Set, which aired in 2008, Brooker set about devising a drama series of his own, resulting in Black Mirror, which made its debut in December 2011.
Brooker explained that Black Mirror was set within the area between the “delight and discomfort” that technology offers – the title itself refers to the black screen of a TV, a computer, a smartphone or whichever piece of technology which allows you to see your reflection staring back at you.
His inspiration for the show was The Twilight Zone which aired in the late 1950s and 1960s: Rod Serling’s creation - also an anthology series - placed ordinary individuals in extraordinary situations. Episodes included a hypochondriac selling his soul to the Devil in return for immortality, a six-year old capable of reading thoughts, and a bookworm who was the only survivor of nuclear oblivion. The Twilight Zone dabbled in a range of genres, from science-fiction to fantasy to thriller, packed full of twists and turns.
Brooker explained that part of the joy that stemmed from Serling’s series was that “you hadn’t already seen it. Every week you were plunged into a slightly different world. There was a signature tone to the stories, the same dark chocolate coating – but the filling was always a surprise.”
That was exactly what Brooker set out to do with Black Mirror: every episode zones in on how technology makes us live or impacts our lives. With a usually impressive cast, it explores this theme in different ways, some episodes more outlandish than others.
The first episode - The National Anthem - saw the Prime Minister, played by Rory Kinnear, faced with an ultimatum: in order to save the life of a member of the Royal Family, he must indulge in an unmentionable act with a pig live on TV which would cause national, well, snoutrage, and the subsequent social media storm.
It left little doubt what Black Mirror can offer and, as it happens, ended up straying a little closer to real life than one might have envisaged. Ahem.
Fifteen Million Merits followed, showing the scope of Brooker’s creation: starring Daniel Kaluuya, recently seen in the critically-acclaimed Get Out fame, as Bing, we enter a dystopian future where everyone must cycle all day to provide power and earn merits to go about their daily life.
As they cycle, they watch entertainment to keep themselves occupied, from pornography to game shows, the latter offering their only chance of escape via talent shows in the mould of The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and so forth. Bing meets Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay) while exercising, begins a relationship with her and after hearing her sing, suggests she take part in Hot Shot, a reality show where winners can move to lavish apartments and no longer bike for merits. It doesn’t end well.
Brooker saved the best until last with The Entire History of You – in it, he showed a world where everyone has the ability to ‘Sky Plus’ their memories, meaning they can be rewound and replayed at will and watched on television screens.
With a Black Mirror twist, Brooker explores a relationship between husband (Toby Kebell) and wife (Jodie Whittaker, the first female Doctor Who) and we see the jealousy of Kebell’s character driving the episode as he suspects his wife of having an affair. And with her memories rewindable, replayable and accessible, he can have all the answers - if he wants them. If you’ve ever stalked a lover on Facebook or had a sly look at your partner’s phone, Brooker dials up that paranoia to 100.
Robert Downey Jnr (Iron Man) has optioned the film rights to The Entire History of You and while it’s yet to make a big screen debut, it’s an episode that encapsulates Black Mirror perfectly, ticking every Brooker box: showing the delight and discomfort of technology and offering a timely warning about the side-effects of our love affair with technology.
The series returned with three episodes in 2013 for another dose of techno-paranoia, showing a softer side with Be Right Back, the story of a woman (Hayley Atwell of Marvel fame) that loses her boyfriend (Domnhall Gleeson of Star Wars, Harry Potter and, my favourite film of all time, About Time) but is able to recreate his voice and personality on the phone after digging through his social media profiles.
White Bear followed, where a woman with amnesia awoke to find herself widely ignored and hunted and the last outing was The Waldo Moment, which found a comedian controlling an animated bear. The bear’s popularity grows so much so, it ends up running for an upcoming by-election – arguably another to reflect real life, considering a certain 2016 election winner.
In 2014, Netflix made the show available in America and a special was broadcast starring Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame, a dark Christmas gift for new fans.
The streaming giant bought the series outright a little under a year later and commissioned a new batch of episodes splitting them into two six-part series with bigger budgets and a wider remit: Brooker quickly proved himself to a bigger audience and Nosedive kicked things off in 2016.
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Nosedive had society rate one another with popularity equalling success: it’s possibly the most compelling argument to leave Instagram and social media of all time.
The switch to Netflix saw Black Mirror hit a new high with the tremendous San Junipero which starred Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis and adopted a more hopeful and uplifting tone: the episode won two Primetime Emmy Awards and further highlighted the range Black Mirror can offer.
At the end of December 2017, season four of Black Mirror was released on Netflix – there was an episode directed by Jodie Foster (Arkangel) about parents tracking and monitoring their children through an implanted chip, an episode filmed in Iceland (Crocodile) about a woman distressed about helping her friend cover up a hit-and-run death who resorts to murder and an episode about an online game programmer who creates a simulation space adventure in which he creates digital clones to order around (USS Callister).
Hang the DJ involves a dating app which pre-selects partners for people and chooses the length of their relationship, not taking into account that some of those involved may fall in love and want to opt-out, Metalhead is filmed in black and white and follows the plight of Bella (Maxine Peake) who is trying to flee robotic dogs following the unexplained collapse of society while Penn (of Penn and Teller fame) Jillette’s short story Pain Addict was the inspiration for Black Museum, an episode presented as a series of three stories told by Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) that involve technology and the human brain.
There are no plans for a fifth series as yet, but this groundbreaking show has won legions of new fans and shows no sign of running out of artistic steam.
Of course the irony is that watching Black Mirror may well leave you with a burning desire to scrap ever bit of technology you have and shut-down every social media account you run but you’re going to have to keep your screens in order to see what richly entertaining, unique and varied treat Charlie Brooker has in store for us next time.
* Black Mirror is available in its entirety on streaming service Netflix.